Eastern Frontline. March 2005

Eastern Frontline Interview

I. Christophe for the beginning, many of your fans would love to know a bit more about you. Could you tell about yourself and bring us closer to your extraordinary professional background.

Christophe: Well, I'm 38, French, and grew up in a remote central area of France that looks very much like Ireland and famous for its Celtic/Roman shady past, its sorcery (still practiced nowadays), and its dark legends: for those of you who have seen the movie "The Brotherhood of the Wolf" last year, well, that's my region right there. And that story is the most famous legend of the area. Also, in "Interview with a Vampire", the main character -Lestat- comes from the same place: Auvergne.
I attended Fine Arts school there for 1 year. Then I went to a University of History of Arts for 2 years. This introduced me to medieval architecture -which I used a lot later. I did illustration for homebuilders architects for a while.
I started animation in 1989 -on "Ninja Turtles"- and worked my way through different studios in France. I finally ended in Paris where I entered the Disney studios in 1992. There, I became head of backgrounds on my first Disney feature animated film: "A Goofy movie". Following that, I worked on the 'featurette' "Runaway Brain" and "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" (the great thing was that the cathedral was 15 minutes from us, and I tell you: by now, I know every single statue on the front of this building!!).
After that, I could negotiate my way to the US in 1996 and worked on movies such as "Hercules", "Dinosaur", "Fantasia 2000", "Tarzan", and "Treasure Planet".
In parallel, I had started to develop my own work on the side. I entered the Los Angeles gallery Morpheus in '97, then Powell street gallery in San Francisco, Kaleidoscope gallery in Mission Viejo, and eventually signed a publishing contract with Duirwaigh Gallery/Publishing in Atlanta (you can see their site at www.duirwaighgallery.com).
In February 2002, I quit Disney to pursue a solo career full time. I do covers for books, CD's, magazines and videogames, and I like to do it once in a while, but I try to focus my work more on gallery art and free expression. Nevertheless, I still miss working for the movie industry sometimes. Last year, I did some concept artwork for the movie “Sharktale” at Dreamworks Studios.

II. I’m sure people wonder and ask you questions ... how was it, to work for Disney, to be a part of a team working on projects like: “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” or ‘Hercules”, so how was it?

C: I worked for them for 9 years, and overall, I think it was a great experience.
The corporate world is what it is. It's the same everywhere, whether you go to Disney or any other company. So, you just have to deal with it. But if you can be OK with that aspect of things, and look at the brighter aspect, you'll see that there are a lot of positive and irreplaceable experiences you will get from it.
"The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" will probably remain a great memory for me, as we were working so close to the real "Notre-Dame" and were able to see and touch it everyday, putting on film one more time in History this fantastic piece of architecture.
An Artist's dream.

III. I am sure working for a Disney Studios was in many ways a great chance to learn new things, share experience with others, but on the other hand were there any disadvantages of being a part of animation industry? I mean for you as an artist. How would you describe this experience?

C: Many artists are reluctant to work for a studio because they have the feeling that they will "lose their style", or they will "be lost in the crowd, become a number", or that animation "will steal their soul".
Well, on the contrary, in animation, you meet a lot of artists coming from many different horizons, with many different styles. The fact that they got a job there is already a proof that their work has higher standards. So, there is a lot of exchange going on: techniques, ideas and friendship. Even though we have to work on the same project and learn to follow the same style at a specific time, it only adds to our own skills, enriches our own style and pushes us to be more professional and demanding on ourselves. And if we're not happy, we can step out of animation at almost any time.
At Disney, I had the chance to meet people who pushed me to completely reconsider my way of painting and showed me older techniques and other ways of "thinking" a painting. From there, I could mix it with things I already knew and skills I already had.
In twelve years of animation, I have worked for and visited a lot of animation studios.
And studios like Disney, Dreamworks, Pixar or Blue Sky are definitely the best studios out there for quality standards, although you can find excellent artists in smaller studios as well. And not to forget someone important, Hayao Myasaki is one of these rare directors out there to have understood what animation is all about: story, poetry and imagination.

IV. You left home, France, Europe ... all that you had there, to continue your professional career with Disney . Was it hard to be a newcomer in U.S.?

C: Yes, it was a big move. I left everything behind, and it was hard, but I had always wanted to go to the US. I had the feeling that I would get opportunities here that France would never offer me; and I did.
I also had a very familiar feeling about the U.S. that never left me. When I was 7, my parents had a record of Dvorjak, Symphony 9: Symphony of the New World. I used to listen to it all the time. On the cover, there was a picture of the Grand Canyon. For some reason, the music and the picture stuck together in my mind and -although I didn't know exactly why- became a symbol of my distant future.
It's not that easy to leave everything behind, to change your Life and dive into the unknown. I saw a lot of French people who, either could have done it but didn't want to, or wanted to do it but didn't measure the consequences of such a choice: to leave everything behind costs a lot, emotionally and psychologically.
It is often after you have left something that you realize how you really miss it. Nevertheless, in my mind there was no half measure: to come to the US had always been a Lifelong dream. And with the different trips I had made in the US before, I was used to the mentality and the difference of Culture.

V. I wonder were there any specific differences in working for Disney in Paris studio and then later in California? How would you compare it?

C: Well, working for a French studio lead by Americans, and an American studio lead by Americans are definitely two different things.
When you work in a specific country, the overall mentality you have to deal with is the mentality of the country you are in.
And needless to say: French and American mentalities are VERY different.
There are good and bad things on both sides.
For instance, I have always admired the ability for Americans to build teamwork, to create a project from a vision to making it into something real; it’s an ability to believe that nothing is impossible -a little bit like a child- and to trust your leader and your whole team to achieve it along with yourself.
This has its downside too: for instance to come to the false belief that there is nothing really as good as the American way, or that the key to success is the (over)use of simplistic formulas (for instance in terms of story), thinking that these formulas will work every time the same.
When you look at the amount of junk there is in the Hollywood movie industry these days, you understand exactly what this way of thinking can lead to:
Movies that are superbly crafted, with amazing production values (like Photography, Cinematography, Design, etc…) but with absolutely no emotional content or sense of story whatsoever –sorry, I can’t give any specific example without offending some sensibilities here.
On the other hand, French people, because their sense of teaming up with others is not as strong as Americans, tend to develop a more individual and personal type of craft. This can lead to a more creative and inventive way of artistry, but with no support from any team (when you look at how many French and European inventors went to the US within the past 2 centuries to get the financial support they couldn’t get in Europe, it gives you a more precise idea of what I’m talking about).
The downside of this way of thinking is that French people are not very open to trusting external and artistic leadership, or supporting effective ways to organize teamwork. They will ALWAYS have something to complain about, and have built a reputation over this.
I am convinced that finding the right balance between those two very different states of mind was what gave the French Disney studio the high standards of quality it had.
In any case, the golden days are over, and the French studio is gone, unfortunately.

VI. In 2002, after nine years of working for Disney Studios, six years after you left France, you decided to pursue your solo career. What events brought you finally to this point, to try your chances on your own?

C: I think there were several reasons. First, and foremost, I had enough with the big corporation politics, the same 9pm to 6pm job everyday, the lack of creative freedom, and after years of doing my own stuff on the side, I was ready to try it full time. Second, the Animation world was changing big time, with the overwhelming arrival of 3D, and I believe it was the perfect time for me to leave and try new things.
I realized later on that my favorite way of living is actually to go back and forth between personal work and movie studio work. So, I don’t depend on any of the two, and when I feel a little lonely, I go back to the social life of a studio environment.
Besides, I’ve spent the last 12 months learning Maya 3D in depth, and I really like the new potentials of 3D animation.
So, I don’t think I’m ready to completely leave the movie industry yet.

VII. Was it difficult to make such a step, to quit Disney and start a new life?

C: It was tough for a while to find yourself back in you apartment starting almost from scratch again, almost feeling like your identity had been stripped away from you (after 9 years working for a company, it’s always a weird feeling when they finally ask your ID card and badge back), and on top of that trying to cope with the breakup of my girlfriend a few months earlier.

VIII. Could you tell us something about your present activities ... I know that you are creating cd, book and game covers.

C: I do both covers for all the above mentioned, and also paintings for galleries and my partner publishing company in Atlanta. I also do concept artwork for different studios when the opportunity comes. I try to juggle between all of these activities, which is not easy, and since I have been interested in 3D modeling, texturing, etc… for the past 12 months, it’s even more of a challenge.

IX. About the concept artwork that you worked on recently, was there anything particularly interesting you want to share with us?

C: Well, the last concept artwork I did (and I’m still doing) was for the 3D short movie I’m talking about in question X. It’s a comedy about what happened to the Mars Rover when NASA lost contact with it for two days, a couple of years ago. I did the design for the Rover in this 3D short (and we’re still changing things on it) and a few other robots (you can see them on my site if you go to [galleries>movie work>characters>cartoony]; It’s different from what people are used to see me doing, but it’s fun. I’m modeling it right now, and will texture it later. I’m also going to make some color keys for environments and overlook the Art direction on the whole movie. I’ll probably keep posting all this on my site.

X. What are you working on right now?

C: I just finished another book cover for Harper Collins Publishing in New York, and I am currently Art directing a 3D short film with a few people, at the same time as I am doing a painting for an Art collector in New York.

XI. Before we start talking about your paintings, could you tell a few words about your artistic influences.

C: Well, at first, I wanted to be a comic book artist. My first influences were famous European comic books like Tintin, and a lot of Italian black and white monthly comics. At 13, I discovered the world of super heroes (Daredevil, Iron-man, Spiderman and other X-men). I can say my life really changed then. Moebius and the birth of "Heavy Metal" magazine (when it was REALLY creative) were also a major influence to me.
Then, I went to a Fine-Arts school, and it opened my eyes on classical Art, although illustrators like Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Wojtek Siudmak or Michael Whelan also fascinated me.
Since then, things have changed. I've met dozens of amazing artists in animation (particularly at Disney) from whom I've learned a lot. I have broadened my horizons in Art and discovered many different styles and schools, from the Realists, Pre-Raphaelites, Romantics, Orientalists, Symbolists or Visionaries in Europe, to the Hudson River school, American Realists, American impressionists and Plein Air painters in the US, not to mention all the generations of great American illustrators.

XII. I know that music is also a great source of inspiration for you. Could you tell, what do you listen while you are working?

C: My range of music is quite wide. From Loreena Mc Kennitt to Dead can Dance, going through Enya, Metallica, U2 and a lot of movie soundtracks. The list is non exhaustive.

XIII. Your great fantasy worlds, full of breathtaking landscapes, mythical women ... seems to be free from popular s.f. or fantasy styles which we can find everywhere nowdays in the internet or cinema. On the other hand I feel some strong influence by classic artworks, myths, literature, like “Lord Of The Rings”, “Chronicles Of Narnia”. Am I right in my observations?

C: You’re absolutely right. I try not to follow any main stream hype or fashion. Hollywood, videogames and the American comic books systems have created some kind of stereotypical and simplistic world that young generations believe to be the source and inspiration for fantasy –whereas it is in fact the contrary: Hollywood and all the big fantasy making companies nowadays are hungry for new stuff, and constantly drawing from the well of old legends. “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” are a screaming example of this.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in an area that had a rich past History in legends, and the fairytales I knew were from my Grand mother’s books, not from Hollywood.
Curiously, a painting like “The Giants” that reflects a very “Lord of the Rings” feeling was finished almost 2 years before the movie was done (many people asked me after the movie came out if I had worked on the movie or at least the poster of the movie, which I hadn’t) and I had not even read the books!
Nevertheless, working for Weta Digital in the future is a possibility I’m studying very seriously.
As for “The Chronicles of Narnia”, I had been contacted originally by the company that was starting to produce the movie, to do concept artwork on it.
I was very excited about it.
They finally never called me back.
Go figure…

XIV. First question that comes to my mind when I watch your paintings is ... do you always have this strong idea, clear vision of what you want to create?

C: Not always. Most of the times, it’s a blurry vision I get from either listening to music, or seeing an image or a situation in real life that makes me see something else.

XV. I am sure many people wonder what’s the story behind your flying rocks with castles and fortresses. Could you disclose your secret?

C: Ha, ha, there is no secret, really. OK, if you want the short answer, I’d say when they are not floating cities, they represent some kind of guiding Spirits, like in “The Messengers”.
If you want the longer answer, you have to go into deeper analysis: if you consider Rock as the symbol of earthly dead Matter, and Movement and Light as the symbols of Life and Energy, then a floating rock with light coming from within is something that seems so impossible that the vision of it becomes the ultimate symbol for Life incarnated into Matter. Does that make any sense?
No, I didn’t take any crack this morning, I swear.

XVI. Could you tell us, what is your typical working process, how do you begin your painting?

C: I generally draw a quick sketch first, to be able to remember the concept later when I need to paint the full image. From there, either the image is very clear in my mind and I don't need any other elements, or I try to find visual references: pictures for similar landscapes, color inspiration or models. Then, I conceive the sketch, carefully paying attention to composition, shapes and scale. I don't always paint on the same support, because I like variety, but most of the time, I paint on canvas. I cover it with 2 or 3 coats of Gesso and draw my sketch over when it' s dry. After that, sometimes, I paint an undercoat of Burnt Umber, defining the light and shadow. I will use this undercoat later when I paint colors over it, keeping colors more transparent in some areas to keep the warm tones showing through. Most of the time, I will paint an overall rough painting with all the colors, before I work in it again refining only the places that need to be refined. The final painting is varnished (glossy).
For a digital painting, I use Photoshop, and the process is simpler, as you can control all your parameters (Values, color saturation, object placements, etc…) so much better.
The difference is that the process and final product with real paint is a much a stronger textural and tactile experience, it offers a journey for the senses that no computer will ever be able to offer -at least, not in a natural manner.

XVII. You are a true master in variety of techniques ... acryl, oil, digital paintings ... which one is your favourite and why?

C: Every technique is different and has its own "personality." I enjoy all of them pretty much the same way, but what makes me like working with oils or acrylics the most is the tactile and sensual properties, the final result, this almost three dimensional feeling of a flat image that you get when you look at a real painting, especially in a gallery environment, where the light has been worked on to enhance this illusion.

XVIII. What was your way to digital world. How did it start?

C: I discovered Digital for the first time working on Art concepts for the movie "Dinosaur". I did paintings and photo manipulations on Photoshop and Painter. Then, I dropped it for a few months and went back to traditional. But I started to miss working with Digital. So I went back to it. And I learned how to really appreciate. Since then, I bought my own material, and constantly juggle now between Digital and Traditional. For instance, I do my paintings for galleries with oil or acrylic paint, and most book or videogame covers on Photoshop. It's faster, more effective, and the control of all parameters (values and tones, color saturation, etc…) allows easy changes. And publishers don't need originals, only the image. To paint for a gallery is different. People who buy a painting don't do it only for the image, but also for the tactile and sensual experience. Something that Digital will never be able to give -at least not the same way.
In terms of 3D, I did a little bit of traditional sculpture, and I’ve been learning Maya 3D intensely for the past 12 months. I'm really interested, it's a different world, and full of potential.
I'm interested in Digital Matte Painting as well, and I wouldn't mind trying my hand at it soon, if the opportunity comes.

XIX. What is your favourite digital tool, photoshop, painter or maybe something else ?

C: I’m very familiar with Photoshop, a little with Painter, but the potential 3D programs offer (whether it’s Maya, Studio Max or Zbrush) is really exciting as well (I’m getting pretty proficient in Maya –more specifically in modeling and texturing- and I’m playing with Zbrush right now). The only problem is that you realize that once you’re getting close to master one program, you have 3 or 4 more to learn. It’s a never-ending story.

XX. About your 3D fascinations, is there a chance to see in a future a 3D short film animated and directed by Christophe Vacher , maybe something mystical ... like “the cathedral” by Tomasz Bagiski? Oscars and other awards are waiting.

C: Funny you ask; I had heard of this short and seen some pictures for quite a while. I finally bought it a few months ago. It’s a beautiful short, and I feel very close to this kind of work.
But I also know how much time and effort has to be invested in such a kind of project. It’s gigantic, especially when you are working with only a few people.
Who knows, maybe some day. The Atlanta Publishing company I am with (Duirwaigh Gallery/Publishing) is interested in expanding into movie production later. So, we’ll see…

XXI. I wonder after all those projects, new activities is there anything you still dream of , any desires, plans for the future?

C: Well, keep developing the artistic career I started, and on a more intimate level, find the right girl and maybe later buy a nice house in a quiet area and have a family. One thing for sure, though: LA is not the right place for neither of those, so I know I will probably have to move away soon.
And I terribly miss the four seasons, really green springs and summers (LA is just a burnt toast after April). Right now, I’m thinking of Vancouver, Canada.

C: I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to France. I love the countryside and landscape, but the mentality is not very progressive, people there don’t really believe in dreams; and I do.
Besides, salaries are not the same, and taxes in France are simply outrageous.
I don’t think I would ever have been able to do in Europe what I have achieved here.
I saw a Bernard Pivot show on French TV one day where he was saying: “The difference between Americans and French in the Art business is that French take money and make Art with it, Americans take Art and make money with it”.
I think it summarize very well our respective attitudes. Americans have a tendency to put business and money first, and the appreciation of Art second. French will do exactly the opposite.
For my part, I will say that Art appreciation is great, and I wouldn’t have much respect for an Artist who wouldn’t put his heart first in his creative process; but successful Art has always been associated with the fact that the people who can afford to buy it are the people with money; because it is an activity that is on the outskirt of a country’s economy, a luxury that people only can afford when a country’s economy is going well.
To make a living as an Artist, it is imperative to associate it –at least partly- with business. In France, it is associated mostly with the bullshit of social prestige, elitist Artistic circles, and higher social layers.
So, I would say that it’s probably not impossible to succeed as an Artist in Europe, but the success of an Artist depends very much on the state of the economy in the country where he resides, and on his ability to reach the people who will be able to afford to buy his work.

XXIII. One of the last questions. Christophe, could you tell us what’s a typical day in your life? Do you find time to do something else than work, any time for your hobbies?

C: It depends of course on what I'm working on and if I work at home or for a studio on location, but I try to maintain regular work hours (9 or 10 am to 6pm) for the freelance stuff, and reserve the evening for my personal work. And I keep a workout time of 1 1/2 hour at the gym or the dojo (I've been doing martial arts for 21 years now) every other day around 6:30 PM. It can happen I also work on the weekends, but I never replace friends' time with work time.

XXIV. At the end of our conversation, what advice can you give to the beginners, young peoples dreaming of being an artist?

C: Persistence! There are a lot of ignored geniuses out there - because they didn't have persistence.
This generation has a lot of information tools (like internet) that I didn't have when I was in my late teens. I would have killed to have access to this amount of information. Use them! Get interested in everything around you, learn, find your own way, and be persistent!